Monday, January 14, 2019

Book review: "Ten Hours Until Dawn: The True Story of Heroism and Tragedy Aboard the Can Do"

It would not be surprising if anyone who read "Ten Hours Until Dawn" refused to ever again get in a boat.

This 2005 book by Michael J. Tougias offers a pulse-rattling collection of disasters at sea. There are huge storms, sinking ships, terrified sailors, and people tossed into churning waves. Some people die despite daring rescue attempts. Some people survive thanks to their own grit or the heroism of others.

And, just so you don't get too comfortable in your easy chair, Tougias throws in a few disasters on land, too.

Make no mistake: "Ten Hours Until Dawn" is filled with riveting stories that will keep you engaged and hurriedly turning pages. That said, Tougias' book doesn't quite hold together. This is partly because each story yanks the reader in a different direction, and also because there's not enough suspense in the main story.

The central story surrounds Frank Quirk, the owner and operator of the Can Do, a 50-foot-long pilot boat that plies the waters of Massachusetts' Gloucester Bay. When a nearby tanker calls for help amid a monster storm -- the famed "Blizzard of 1978" -- Quirk and four other men take the Can Do out into a night of ferocious seas.

Tougias -- a wonderful writer who has done thorough research -- tells the story of the Can Do minute by minute as the peril facing the men on board grows through the night. The author also interjects other stories, some from the same night, and some from centuries ago, that show similar perils and dangerous situations.

Tougias is perhaps my favorite writer. Three of his books I absolutely loved: "Overboard" (2010), "A Storm Too Soon" (2013), and "Fatal Forecast" (2006).  I liked his "So Close to Home" (2016) a bit less than the others, but it still told a good story.

For all its merits, I can only rate "Ten Hours on Dawn" as good, not great. One issue is that while Tougias doesn't say it outright, it quickly become apparent that the Can Do and all is occupants are doomed (a big clue: While Tougias quotes almost every person who has survived a perilous situation at sea in the modern era, there are no "post-game" quotes from Quirk or his crew). You realize  halfway through the book that it's not realistic to hope for them to survive. Much of the latter part of the book is just a long sad slide toward the inevitable.

Tougias also faces a similar situation to what Sebastian Junger faced when writing "The Perfect Storm" -- neither the author nor anyone really knows what happened aboard the doomed ship. There's a lot of speculation, and Tougias does his best, but he can never quite close that narrative gap.

"Ten Hours Until Dawn" is an impressively detailed book, and you can't help feeling pain of the mourning families at the end.  Still, not all the stories Tougias shares fit together, and some would maybe be better off in a book of their own.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Moore Leauge Showdown: Who has the best boys basketball website?

By Scott Wilson

In this installment of Moore League Showdown, we're assessing which school has the best boys basketball website. This time around, no one gets an A while one school gets an F..

I've been doing this series for a year and a half and I continue to be amazed at how few schools and coaches recognize the importance of a strong online presence. A team's website is the face it presents to the world. A good site can engage and inspire fans, who may then buy tickets or otherwise financially support the program. It can also win over the parents of students, drawing talented new athletes to your team. .  

I continue to be puzzled why teams find it so difficult to report results of their games on their own websites. When I was coaching 9-year-olds (for free) in AYSO soccer, there was a simple process to post game scores on the league site. It took about 20 seconds. Why is it so hard for high school coaches (who are paid) to post their scores?

(To be fair, some teams in the Moore Leagues do have excellent web pages. One is Wilson's baseball website.)

A couple notes: First, this is a review of official team pages, not commercial sites like MaxPreps or fan sites.  Also, websites change, so this review can only capture a "snapshot" at this time. Tomorrow, any one of these websites may be better or worse, or even disappear altogether.

The ratings:

Grade: B
The Bruins "win" this competition basically by not losing. Their boys basketball page includes a practice schedule and game schedule (for all levels), both current. There are no results, but there is a clearly labeled link to find scores on MaxPreps.  The head coach's name, email address and phone number (nice!) are prominent. 

That's good for the basics, and there are no obvious errors, but there's almost no other content. There are no rosters, no other coaches' names besides the head coach, and only two pictures, both years old.  

Grade: B-
Jordan High School does a lot right with its boys basketball pages, but it needs to pay more attention to detail to get that A grade.

Jordan's official page on the school website has the name of all the coaches, with the email address and even phone number of the head coach. There's a link to MaxPreps for those who want results, but it's not labeled and could easily be missed.

There's also a prominent link to a separate Jordan basketball website. This is where things get interesting -- and weird. The good-looking Wix-based website has both hits and misses.

Jordan's is the only Moore League boys basketball site to include current rosters of the varsity, JV, sophomore and freshman teams. It has a game schedule but no results. The front page features announcements of two upcoming events, but also one that is outdated. On the separate "announcements" page, everything is from last season.

Under "Latest News" is this:

I'm a paragraph. Click here to add your own text and edit me. It’s easy. Just click “Edit Text” or double click me and you can start adding your own content and make changes to the font. Feel free to drag and drop me anywhere you like on your page. I’m a great place for you to tell a story and let your users know a little more about you.

You see what I mean about attention to detail?

One of the best things on the site is a "Parent Basketball Handbook" that spells out many of the standards and expectations for the program. For instance: "The Student-Athlete must refrain from the use of profanity or resorting to illegal tactics. He must learn that both winning and losing are a part of the game and that you have to be a good loser as well as a gracious winner."

If I was a parent considering whether the Jordan program would be good for my son, I would be heartened to see such a clear statement of the team's principles.

Grade: C
The official page for Lakewood boys basketball has a schedule for the current season, plus the coach's name, his email address and a picture of him. That covers many of the fundamentals, but fans and parents will want more. How about some results? Pictures? Rosters? What about schedules for the freshman and JV teams? 

Long Beach Poly
Grade: D
Poly usually has the best, or one of the best, boys basketball teams in the Moore League, but its website is not going to win any awards. The school's official page has many pictures, but none from current season. The coach's name, along with an email address, is shown, but I wouldn't blame anyone for being confused. First, the page misspells coach Shelton Diggs' name as "Shelton Digg." Second, it also lists Sharrief Metoyer as "Teacher / Boys Basketball Coach." One problem: Metoyer hasn't been a Poly coach for four years.

The page has no schedule, no results, no roster. Persistent fans might eventually find themselves to the semi-official Poly Sports site (there's no link to it from the school site). But even if they do, they'll be disappointed. There is a schedule, and some results there, but they're incomplete. And there's nothing else.

Grade: D-
Those who come to the boys basketball page on the official Millikan High School will find two things: First there's a link to a game schedule for last season (just the schedule, no results). Second there is a link that leads to the boys basketball page at the separate Millikan Athletics website. And what will they find there? This: "Error 404: The page you're looking for either doesn't exist or can't be found."

Most people will stop there, concluding that Millikan is too lame to have even a single decent basketball page. Prospective players will choose other schools; fans will find other teams to support. A few people, if they persist, might click around and find that there actually is a schedule -- n woefully incomplete one -- for the varsity team, with some results . But that's it. There are no coaches' names, much less a way to contact them. There are no pictures, no roster and, for the JV and freshman teams, absolutely nothing.

Fans can find more information -- not that the bar has been set high -- at the Millikan boys basketball Facebook page (it's unclear who the creators of this page are). There are some photos, videos, and game results, but it still is far from complete. The events page is filled with items that are over four years old.

Grade: F
If you go to the Compton High website and click on "Varsity Teams," you will come to a page that says "Varsity Teams" -- and nothing else.

There is a separate "Schedules" page that claims (falsely) to offer a link to last year's schedule for the "Boys Varsisty Basketball" team. Spelling aside, the link actually goes to MaxPreps, the national high school sports site. MaxPreps is a decent website, but by not publishing anything about its own team on its own site, Compton High is showing how little respect it gives its basketball program. Why should fans, parents, and sportswriters care about your team, when you don't? 

See also

Moore League showdown: Who has the best baseball website?

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Friday, May 4, 2018

Book review: "A River in Darkness" by Masagi Ishikawa

If news events in North Korea leave you puzzled, you could probably go to the library and pick up a stack of dry, fact-filled history books to give you some background.

Or, you could read Masagi Ishikawa's "A River in Darkness" and understand North Korea in a deeper, more intimate way than any traditional history book could offer.

In "A River in Darkness," Ishikawa tells his heartbreaking life story that began in 1947 in Japan. His father was Korean (from what is now South Korea), his mother Japanese.

When Ishikawa was 13, his father was won over by North Korean propaganda promising a "paradise on Earth" in Kim Il-Sung's newly formed Communist state. Despite the objections of everyone else in the family, the father insisted on moving them all to North Korea.

Immediately, they knew they had made a disastrous mistake, but there was no turning back.  Their first meal in North Korea was dog meat.  Their new home was a shack. While they had been poor in Japan, they were much, much worse off in North Korea.

Food was always short in their North Korean village and Ishikawa's family often survived by eating weeds, acorns and tree bark. Around him, Ishikawa saw people starve to death.

"When you're starving to death, you lose all the fat from your lips and nose," writes Ishikawa. "Once your lips disappear, your teeth are bared all the time, like a snarling dog. Your nose is reduced to a pair of nostrils. I wish desperately that I didn't know these things, but I do."

After Ishikawa, the most prominent character in the book is his father. In Japan, his father was a violent alcoholic who repeatedly beat his wife. Oddly, the beatings stopped once they reached North Korea, and Ishikawa reports that how his father belatedly transformed into a compassionate man.

As much as I like the book, I do have some issues with it.

First, while the author carefully describes his father and mother, he does little to bring his sisters to life in the narrative. They pop in and out of the story, but we never learn much about their personalities..

Seconds, late in the book, Ishikawa reports that after years of terrible jobs, he gets a relatively good position delivering supplies of soybean paste and soy sauce. This was a good job, he explained, because it would give him the chance to use the items to bribe officials in exchange for highly valued goods like a refrigerator or television. But then he drops the subject and never mentions it again.

(Warning: Spoiler alert ahead!)

Finally, I was troubled at the end when Ishikawa has made his way back to Japan. He says that his greatest desire is to get his family out of North Korea, but when he meets with Japanese officials, he passively listens to them and never asks for help get his family out. Huh?  There must be something missing in his telling here -- he's not a professional writer, after all  --  but it did trouble me.

Still, those are minor quibbles. Overall, after reading this book, I feel I understand the anguish of the North Korean people more than ever. There are no simple solutions, though. As Ishikawa makes clear, the North Korean people have been beaten down for so long, they simply don't understand what living free would mean.


Sunday, April 22, 2018

Getting a better deal on satellite TV

I was excited recently when our two-year commitment to DirecTV expired. We'd signed up with DirecTV -- leaving Dish Network -- in 2016 after they promised us an attractive package that would seemingly save us money.

But the deal was less than it appeared. We knew from the beginning that our initial low rate wouldn't last, but later discounts that they promised never materialized. Plus, their basic rates went up. Our costs soared, and we ended up pay $98 a month, a ridiculous amount. 

What's more, there were numerous thing about DirecTV that I didn't like.. The user interface was  nonsensical in many ways and some "features" were more annoying than helpful. And there was the time their tech support was unable to solve a problem -- even with multiple attempts -- that turned out to be very simple.

So when the two years we had promised to DirecTV expired, I was eager to go back to Dish Network.  

But things didn't go as expected.

At its website, Dish offered a package for $59.99, plus tax. The package, the ad said, "includes DVR." That looked good. But I had a few questions, so I decided to call them. 

One I reached a Dish rep, he wouldn't even discuss price until I had given him  my social security number and a credit card number. They said it was to establish my credit, but I found it incredibly intrusive.  After I pushed back, and with quite a bit of reluctance from the rep, he eventually relented on the credit card number request. (Geez, even when you buy a car, they're willing to discuss price before checking your credit.)

The pushy rep eventually offered me a package that amounted to $74.99 plus tax. Huh? What happened to the $59.99 a month? Oh, said the rep, that doesn't include the $15 a month for the receiver.

Think about that for a second: You can't watch Dish Network without their receiver. You must have one. So while the Dish website advertises $59.99 a month, it is impossible to actually watch Dish Network at that rate. I suppose you could say you don't want a receiver, but then what? Stare at a blank TV?

Eventually, the rep took $5 off after I agreed to online billing. So that brought it to $69.99 a month plus tax. Also, after I mentioned an offer made on another website, he agreed to give me a $100 Visa giftcard as part of our deal (hint: use the code CARD100).

It took a lot of work, but I seemed to finally have a Dish Network package that was, well, OK.  With tax it would be about $72.50 a month.  Plus the $100 giftcard.

A couple hours later I called DirecTV to give them one more chance. I said I would be disconnecting my service in a few days, and if there was a better rate, it was time to tell me now. Honestly, I wasn't expecting much -- maybe they might offer me $5 or $10 off a month.

Then the bored-sounding rep offered me $60 off a month for 12 months.  I thought there had to be a catch, but no -- she was offering me a rate of about $38 per month, tax included. 

Geez! Yes, I had some complaints about DirecTV, but with that kind of price, I could live with those flaws. I jumped on this deal. 

When I called back Dish to cancel my installation appointment, the rep scoffed at my DirectTV choice, ridiculed DirectTV and offered me $10 more off (so, I guess, a rate of about $62 a month).  I said no thanks.

Of course, the new price only lasts for a year. So next year, DirecTV and Dish, expect to hear from me again. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Wait, wait, don't tell me ... the facts

I normally love the NPR show "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." The news-comedy show is almost always clever and funny, and I even learn a few things.

So I was disturbed this week when I heard the show make clear factual errors regarding what some call a Facebook privacy "scandal."

First, "Wait, Wait" host Peter Sagal said that Facebook "sold all our data without telling us." This is not true. First, Facebook did not sell users' data, at least not in the case in question. What it did was allow a Cambridge University researcher named Alexandr Kogan to offer Facebook users an personality survey called "This is Your Digital Life." When people downloaded the app, it allowed Kogan access to information the information they had put on Facebook, and the information that some of their friends had posted.  So not only did Facebook not sell data, this episode did not involve "all our data."

Second, in conversation with a guest, Sagal said that a company known as Cambridge Analytica bought this data from Facebook. That is not true, either.  Cambridge Analytica got the user data from Kogan.

Third, Sagal said Cambridge Analytica "stole the personal data" of Facebook users. This is completely false. As I said above, Cambridge Analytical got the data from Kogan.


Monday, March 12, 2018

My day with the SAT

On a recent Saturday morning, a couple hundred teenagers gathered outside a high school waiting to take the SAT.  Some of them may have noticed a 50-something man standing among them in the drizzling rain, and wondered, "What is he doing here?"

That man was me, and I had my reasons.

Some months earlier, I had started thinking about the SAT.  My kids would be taking the college entrance test this year and next and I wanted to learn more about it. I figured the best way to really understand the SAT was to take it.

That wasn't my only reason. The other was that I'd never taken the SAT.  I'd taken a different pre-college test four decades ago. As the SAT has risen to become the college assessment test, I've occasionally wondered how I would do on it.

There was one way to find out.

About a month ahead, I starting preparing. I took practice SATs, and reviewed my answers.  It was quickly clear that I was much stronger on the reading and language portions than on the two math sections. In math, I had a lot of catching up to do.

I studied pre-calculus and algebra topics on Khan Academy.  I tried a book called, "Outsmarting the SAT," that turned out not be smart at all.  I went back and took more practice tests.

There was another factor I had to think about: urination.

I am a committed diet cola drinker -- it gives me a caffeine boost each day (I don't drink coffee). But that cola is also a diuretic, and prompts regular runs to the bathroom. That's not a problem if I'm at home or at work, but on on the strictly scheduled SAT, you can't just run to the toilet any time you want.  And squirming with full bladder while trying to solve a quadratic equation wouldn't be a good thing.

So in the week ahead of the SAT, I gave up diet cola. My bathrooms runs ebbed. But my body still craved caffeine.

So on the day of the test I came prepared with a mint chocolate Clif Bar -- each one has 50 milligrams of caffeine.  I figured this would be just enough to avoid caffeine withdrawal headaches.

As I arrived at the high school where I would take my test, a long line of cars backed out of the parking lot as parents dropped off their kids for the important day. Eventually, I slipped in and grabbed the first available parking spot.

At the front of the school were sheets with names of all the test-takers and our assigned rooms. I was a little early when I got my room and had a small bite of Clif Bar as I waited to enter.

Eventually, our testing supervisor, a friendly woman about my age, ushered us into the room. She checked each person's "ticket" and examined our photo IDs.  Test-takers who has brought a cell phone had to hand it over. Soon a big stack of phones piled up on a table at the front of the room.

When I checked in, I grinned at the proctor and said, "Yes, I am taking the SAT."  She said that was great, and asked if I was going back to school. No, just curious, I said.

I was somewhat nervous for the test. I knew it would require a full morning of hard concentration.  Of course, in my case, it really didn't matter. I wasn't trying to get into college. But I still wanted to do well.

Our supervisor told each person where to sit. I think her main goal was to split up people who knew each other.  I was one of the first people to check in and got assigned a seat right in front. Perfect. I had a great view of the clock, and there would be fewer distractions sitting in front.

There were a lot of preliminary items to fill out on the test form -- name, address, test center code, test booklet code, signature. But soon we launched into the test.

The first part was the reading section -- at 65 minutes, the longest section. There were five reading passages, each with 10 or 11 questions following it.

This was intense reading and sometimes I cupped my hands around my face to make sure I fully concentrated on the passage. This was no time to let your mind wander.

Before reading each passage, I would glance at the questions to give me a hint of what to look for. I think this slightly helped.

I thought it was somewhat mean to put the most scientific and technical of the passages -- one dealing with bacteria and vaccines -- at the end. That was tough. If I take the SAT again, I would consider finding the scientific passage (there always is one) and doing it first.

It was a tiring section and I was grateful we had a 10-minute break afterward (time for more Clif Bar).  I made sure when I got back to my desk to close my eyes and try to clear my head before the next section.

The next section was the writing and language section. My pace was a little slow early on during this section, and I had to pick it up about halfway through. But it worked, and I finished in time. I found that in some cases I didn't have to read the entire passage to understand the question.

Next up was math section with no calculator.  Our supervisor had been diligent about posting the stop times on the board, and then warning us as the clock counted down. But she made a mistake here. She announced that 10 minutes was remaining, when in fact, it was about five minutes. I gave her a curious look -- I was in the front row -- and pointed at the board. She corrected herself quickly.

(Some might say that I shouldn't have corrected her, and got an additional 5 minutes. But the finishing time was clearly printed on the board. If  she hadn't recognized the mistake when I noted it, she would have later, likely causing more confusion and consternation.)

After that section, we had a five minute break. Another bite of Clif Bar.

Then it was on to math section with calculator.  I did my best, but there were definitely questions I had to guess on. One thing you learn preparing for the SAT is to have a mental clock in your head, and recognize when you've just got to move on from a question. You can't keep pounding your head against the wall on a question you're not getting. Make your best guess and go on.

In none of the sections  -- fortunately -- did I really run out of time. I always had at least three minutes to review my answers at the end. This was partly because I knew when give up on certain questions, but it still felt satisfying. 

After that section was a 2-minute "stretch break."  Then came the SAT's "experimental" section.  This is a section where the College Board tries out new material. They insist, however, that some of the questions count (some people doubt that).

Apparently, not everybody gets the same type of section here. I got math with calculator.  You only have 20 minutes on this section, and while this portion was the easiest of the whole test, for a while I feared that I might not finish all the questions.

Here was the problem: For all the other sections, the bubble-in answer sheet had exactly the same number of available answer spaces as there were questions. So in the experimental section, going by the answer sheet, it looked like there were 22 questions. And about halfway through the time, I was alarmed to see that I a lot of question to go.

Then  suddenly, I realized there were only 15 questions. (It's likely the answer sheet is designed to handle more questions because different people get different material on the experimental section.)

This gave me much extra time, and relief. But that extra time actually caused me a problem. With plenty of time to reconsider my answers, I honed in on one question that showed two equations and asked that if  those equations were graphed, how many places would they intersect?

At first, I said zero. Upon reconsideration, I said, no, one and changed my answer. Then I thought again, and said, no it's zero. More erasing. Finally, just as time was expiring. I changed it back to one.

Sigh. As I left the high school, I realized it should have been zero. I had overthought.  I hope they don't count the experimental section!